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April 28, 2007

The "Feminine Mistake"? Not for the Home Office Lawyering Mom

Leslie Bennetts of Vanity Fair and has written a book entitled The Feminine Mistake; Are We Giving Up Too Much?  Well this book has the fur flying between working-outside-the-home moms and non-working stay-at-home moms because it is actually factual, not just someone's opinion.  Ms. Bennetts is not talking about the value of one choice over the other as it relates to parenting, although she references studies that suggest there is no difference.  She is talking about the long term effects on the woman who makes the choice to leave the working world for marriage and/or to raise children and the professional, financial and health realities that face these women after divorce, death or disability of a spouse/partner, and empty nest syndrome on their self-esteem, health and much more.

Having been a divorce lawyer for 13 years, I can't help but understand the value of reading a book such as this because I saw women who chose the more traditional path of staying at home willingly.  Voluntarily they sacrificed their careers to raise children then faced challenges after an unexpected divorce which put them in a financial position they never anticipated.

But this book isn't just about that.  This book is about a woman's journey through life, her identity and self-reliance which sometimes (and I emphasize 'sometimes') is knowingly or unknowingly sacrificed on the altar of motherhood, women going into marriage and motherhood with their eyes wide shut, not necessarily understanding the full ramifications of their decision or thinking realistically about their life beyond their children's high school graduation.

This is a complicated hot button issue and my goal is not to take sides because it is truly a personal decision for a woman.  It is a decision made based upon a complex set of emotional and financial issues unique to each.  I have not read the book but read Ms. Bennetts' reasons for writing it and summaries of the factual information.  As in anything pertaining to the human condition there are exceptions and you might very well be one of them but I think young female lawyers who have invested so much into their career and 'want it all' (again, depending upon what 'all' means to you) should read the book.

I firmly believe you can have it all but it is about planning and being smart and being true to yourself, not always willingly surpressing your needs for others .  Understanding the variables that can happen in one's life, assessing what is right for you and then working with the information in a way that makes sense for yourself is an important part of the maturation process.

It doesn't have to be a tug of war with yourself, your spouse, your parents, other mothers or society. But it is about understanding yourself. Only you can be an effective general in your own life. 

That is why being a solo practitioner or home office lawyer can be an ideal blending for a woman lawyer who wants to integrate these two powerful needs and desires while maintaining their professional and financial independence and enjoying the gift that is parenthood.  It is a tough balancing act, no question. But it can be done. (Now, I'm not ignoring those men who make this choice...it's just not the topic of the book!). 

Please share your stories about how you may have made the decision to be a solo primarily for these reasons: to maintain your independence and to fulfill your need to be a stay-at-home mom.  (And for those who may feel offended I'm passing commentary on moms who work outside their home, I'm not.  I'm asking for commentary from those who made this particular choice and their rationale and experiences, both good and bad.)

(And for more information, coincidentally, go to Costco.com which, just in time for Mother's Day, features a whole article on Mompreneurs, Mom, Inc., those who choose to create businesses out of their homes while raising their children, and includes everyone who earns a living while being a stay-at-home Mom. It provides links to valuable community networking sites and inspirational stories.)


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Carolyn Elefant

Thanks for alerting us to this new book. I'll take a stab at your question.
I always wanted children, and I always knew that I wanted to stay home with them when they were young. But at the time, I thought I'd do what some of my friends had done to stay home and just leave my job. Of course, before I could do that, my job left me: my firm gave me notice that I had six months to find another job (I believed it was economics, they said merit; 13 years later, I realize it was probably a mixture of both). I looked for another position and couldn't find one, so I decided to start my law firm. Naturally, during the early months of practice, business was slow and when I mentioned this to a "friend" of mine, she said "Well, why not just get pregnant. You're not working anyway." I was really offended by this remark, and it gave me the incentive (albeit negative) to work even harder. Shortly thereafter, my firm picked up and I started doing all kinds of things I'd dreamed of: teaching (contract law at a paralegal program), trials (mostly criminal), appellate arguments (energy related), supervising a staff (by hiring college students and law students) and actually making money at it. As things turned out, I did not get pregnant easily, and I ran my firm for three years before my daughter was born. At that point, I realized that I had worked too hard to build my firm to just walk away from it. So I changed the nature of my practice - more high end, regulatory contract work and appeals, no more criminal trials - and hired a nanny to watch my daughter 16 hours a week. Three years later, my older daughter started pre-school and my younger daughter was born, and so I cut back more. I ditched the nanny and worked around pre-school and daycare, though by this time, I was working only 10-15 hours a week and barely had time to finish my billable work let alone market. And I also tried to use the time to plant seeds for the future - I finally got around to taking the Maryland practitioners' exam and I started My Shingle. And most importantly, when I was asked what I did, I always told people that I ran my own law firm (even though struggling to put in 15 hours working at 2 am or during Barney videos often didn't feel like a "real" law firm to me). Before my younger daughter went back to school full day 2 years ago, I thought that I had failed despite my best efforts, and that my firm would go under (I was so distressed by this that I actually had to consult with the DC Bar's Practice Management Assistance Program, a great resource for stress and depressed attorneys that few people know about) But once my daughter started school, the work started coming in again, I started marketing and had my two best years since I went part time. But even now, I plan my schedule to be home most days at 4:15 to meet the school bus and be home for my daughters (now 10 and 7)
To directly answer your question, I never realized that starting a firm and raising children were compatible and I never planned it that way. Were it not for my "friend's" obnoxious comment, I probably would have gone ahead and had kids and left the law. But I guess things sometimes turn out the way they're supposed to.
At the same time, I wouldn't recommend relying on serendipity to keep a career and raise kids. If I could do it again myself, I'd take your advice and work as hard as I could and accomplish as much as I could before I got pregnant (though I don't recommend planning so much that you put off having kids; in my case, I am pretty sure that I could not have gotten pregnant if I'd waited though not everyone has trouble). And even if you just work 5 or 10 hours a week when you're home, tell people that you run your own law firm or freelance contract lawyer business because it will reinforce your sense of professionalism even while you're running around in dirty sweatpants with milk stains on your chest and cheerios in your pockets, but nevertheless, having the time of your life on the playground.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Carolyn, What a wonderfully honest, intimate view into a successful work-at-home lawyer. Most times people don't want to tell about the days of frustration and sadness when all the balls drop to the ground and you have no energy to pick them up..but we do anyway. Thank you so much for letting us peak inside. It isn't all sunshine and lollipops but then whose life is?

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